They're tough on crime, but not smart on it
By James Alan Fox
September 25, 2006
Within hours of her uncontested victory in the Republican primary, Kerry Healey stepped up her campaign for the corner office by launching a technologically glitzy e-book, “Smart, Tough Solutions to Change Massachusetts.”
In the public safety arena, the plan is tough-minded indeed. Proposals to expand online postings of sex offenders, to increase sentences for meth dealers and to track domestic abusers with GPS devices all characterize Healey, a former criminologist, and running mate Reed Hillman, a former state trooper, as tough as nails on crime.
As for smart, the online e-book is definitely smart-looking, right down to the animated page-turns. But at a time when street-gun violence is on the rise, is yet another proposal for reinstating capital punishment a smart approach?
Recognizing the failures of previous administrations to secure support for capital punishment, Healey has proposed a narrower scope - death for those felons convicted of killing a police officer, prosecutor, judge or correctional officer. How smart is it to spend time and energy in pushing for a penalty so narrow that it would hardly matter at all?
If you’re like most people - or at least like my class of over 100 students that I polled - you might think that the murder of law officers is a critical and pervasive problem. Well, think again.
Over the past decade, only three Massachusetts cops and not a single state correctional officer have been slain by an assailant. As for prosecutors, we recall with sadness the fatal shooting of Assistant Attorney General Paul McLaughlin in 1995. But don’t struggle too hard to remember another; apparently this was the first and only such case in Bay State history. You will have a similarly difficult time identifying a significant number of homicides of judges.
Reportedly, Healey would prefer to have the death penalty for other heinous offenses as well, but chose to start with the narrowest set of crimes on which “we can all agree.” It may be a bit of exaggeration to suggest consensus, as not all citizens support such an approach, especially when given a reasonable alternative like long-term incarceration.
Even the people this proposal is designed to protect don’t necessarily see capital punishment as a capital idea. In a 1995 survey of police chiefs, taken at a time when crime levels were much higher than they are today, the nation’s top cops prioritized capital punishment far behind smarter strategies for reducing crime, such as curtailing gun availability and expanding the ranks of law enforcement.
Still, Healey claims her proposal would deter those who might contemplate such a crime. But as a criminologist, she must know that evidence strongly suggests otherwise. She may also know that 84 percent of the past presidents of the three major criminological professional societies concur that the deterrent effect is mostly wishful thinking. It is not that criminals disregard sanctions, only that the prospect of execution is no more dissuasive than life in prison.
Ironically, cop killing is one area that exposes the flaw in the deterrence argument. What deters people is not the severity of punishment, but the perceived likelihood that the penalty will ever be applied. Typically, cop killers shoot in order to avoid arrest. Whether the potential penalty is life imprisonment or death makes little difference when expecting to escape the law.
Come November, Healey’s campaign for capital punishment may prove to have been smart after all - smart politics to win votes by exploiting an emotional non-issue. But smart politics does not always translate into smart policy.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at firstname.lastname@example.org.